Home Pastors Articles for Pastors ‘If You Have Eyes, Plagiarize’: When Borrowing a Sermon Goes Too Far

‘If You Have Eyes, Plagiarize’: When Borrowing a Sermon Goes Too Far

Thom Rainer, former president of LifeWay Christian Resources, a major evangelical publisher, labeled plagiarism as one of the “four most common acts of stupidity that get pastors fired.”

Plagiarizing sermons may be more serious, however, at least theologically. A sermon isn’t just another speech, said theologian Scot McKnight, a professor at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. Instead, it is supposed to be an encounter with God. Through reading, prayer and study, the preacher hears from God and then passes on what they learned to the congregation.

When a pastor short-circuits that by plagiarizing, it’s an act of betrayal, said McKnight.

“The whole idea of taking someone else’s sermon destroys what sermon-making is supposed to be,” he told Religion News Service. “I think that pastors who are plagiarizing are building a web of deceit and shame in their own life. They know what they’re doing is wrong. They live with the fear that they could be discovered. And they seek to mask it as much as possible.”

Among the sermons Reese’s pastor, Zach Stewart, reportedly plagiarized, were a number of sermon series from Southland Christian Church in Kentucky and another series of sermons on the 10 Commandments that originated with Driscoll, including a 2013 sermon entitled “Do Not Steal” that included slightly altered versions of Driscoll’s personal anecdotes.

After discovering her pastor was plagiarizing, Reese contacted the church’s elders, who eventually confronted Stewart, who left the church in 2016 without apologizing. The church removed all of his sermons from their site and tried to move on, Reese and other former members told RNS.

An elder from Franklin Christian Church confirmed that Stewart worked for the church from 2011 to 2016 but declined to comment otherwise. Stewart also declined to be interviewed and said his new church’s elders and their lawyer advised against commenting.

In 2017, Stewart posted what he called an “1,800-word apology” on his blog. The post did not mention his plagiarism or former church but said, “I have deceived others greatly. I have stolen much secretly. I have perfected the lie of making myself look better than I really am.”

In April, Stewart, now pastor of Twin Oaks Christian Church in Woodhaven, Michigan, preached a pair of sermons on the Book of Proverbs, which drew heavily from 2019 sermons by Driscoll on the same topic, in places reciting Driscoll word for word and mimicking Driscoll’s gestures, according to a video that was until recently available on the church’s website.

The pastor made no mention of using Driscoll’s work in the video.

“Now, I put much study, reading, preparation and prayer into today,” Stewart told the congregation at Twin Oaks, as he started a sermon entitled “How Do I Heal Emotionally.” “I am eager to pass on to you God’s wisdom from God’s Word, to help you heal emotionally through whatever grief that you have,” he said.

Stewart said that he had been fired after a coup at his old church and made no mention of his own plagiarism, just as Driscoll began his sermon by retelling the story of how he left the now-defunct Mars Hill.

Both men made the same gestures mimicking shooting an arrow as they told their congregations that sometimes, like a bow being pulled back, they had to go back to the past in order to move forward to the future.

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Bob Smietana is an award-winning religion reporter and editor who has spent two decades producing breaking news, data journalism, investigative reporting, profiles and features for magazines, newspapers, trade publications and websites. Most notably, he has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.